The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Pharaoh's Heart Was Hardened
11.40 pm, Saturday 14th March 1998
Johnny looks at the others. 'Any ideas? We know where they are going – do we go take a look? Perhaps try and get the obelisk?'
Leaving them to think about it, he strides off to the nearest telephone.
'I think it might be worth following,' says Isobel, 'just to keep an eye on them. What do you all think?'
No-one else seems too enthusiastic about the idea, apart from Eddie who says agreeably 'Ah'll tag along for the company, anyroad.'
After some delay Johnny is put through to a tired-sounding Andre Swahn. He explains the situation vis-à-vis Haremakhet / John Torillo and his manipulation of the CPRG to 'move' the pyramid and release Hetepheres's spirit.
'I really don't know if that's a good thing or not,' says Swahn. 'What do we know about this Hetepheres?'
'She was an enemy of Khentkaus, that's about all,' says Johnny.
'And all we know about Khentkaus really is what Haremakhet's told you – and he may not be the most reliable of informants. Hmm. I still don't see where Essawi ties in with all this.' He sighs. 'I think you're going to have to play it by ear again, Operative Stone. Best safety plan would be to make sure you have a way of getting rid of Hetepheres if she does turn out to be a wrong'un – and make sure none of your team gets possessed. Operative Torillo has now been too far compromised for us to regard him as a reliable agent, even if he is freed from his current state. To have one operative possessed could be put down to misfortune; two would look very much like carelessness.' He laughs mirthlessly.
Johnny's trained ear has been picking up that Swahn seems under some stress. 'Is everything OK there?'
'Oh... a bit of trouble. Nothing that need worry you too much. We've had something of a security breach and things are a little tight around the building at the moment.'
'Not the Branston Hall operatives Essawi got at?' asks Johnny worriedly.
'Eh? Oh, no, no, we've had no comeback from that at all yet. No, this was a team in Rumania... anyway, I've said too much already. If your people can get a result, Operative Stone, that'll make up for it a little.'
Johnny hangs up, concerned.
Isobel is explaining to the others that her husband has been filling her in on the current riots in Cairo. 'Apparently they were on the Nine O'Clock News – just in the slums at the moment, but there are worries they might spread.'
Johnny returns, and she, he and Eddie pile into one of the Suzukis to drive down to Giza.
'Ee! Somebody's celebratin' Bonfire Night early!' exclaims Eddie. The night sky of Cairo, in the direction of the slums by the river, is lit red with fire. Police sirens and occasional screeches can be heard, as well as a helicopter.
Fortunately the Sharia al-Ahram, the Avenue of the Pyramids, runs in the other direction, and the three swiftly leave the troubled heart of the city behind.
They arrive to see the CPRG's jeep drawn up in its usual place, the group presumably within. Andrew is standing at the gate to the archaeological dig site, looking concerned, and he dashes over to join them. 'They went in – five of them this time! And I think one was John Torillo!'
Isobel updates Andrew on developments at the hotel, while Johnny and Eddie approach the pyramid of Khentkaus once more. The guards stiffen expectantly, hoping for another bribe, but Johnny can see little point sneaking in if they are not going to steal the obelisk – which it does not seem there is any great consensus in the party to do. 'This lot seem to be the catalyst for what is happening now,' he says to Eddie. 'I say we should try and stick close to them.'
Isobel starts to feel a slight tingling running through her, like static electricity: the fine hairs on her arms stand on end. She is almost certain she can hear a faint grating, grinding noise. 'Can any of the rest of you hear that?'
'Hear what?' they chorus as one.
Isobel shakes her head annoyedly, trying to clear it of extraneous inputs, but the grating noise has gone, and the charge in the air seems to fade. She looks hard at the pyramid, but if it has shifted the effect is not noticeable with the naked eye – from the outside, at least.
Time passes, and eventually the CPRG emerge from the pyramid – John Torillo looking smug and sprightly, the others appearing rather tired and worn. Pope and Presley struggle with the obelisk.
They load into their jeep and drive off back towards the city.
The SITU team, apart from Andrew, leave a suitable gap and then do likewise.
Celestina rises very early, digging the unfortunate Eddie out of bed to accompany her, and ventures into Cairo's bazaars to do some shopping. She buys two Dictaphones and a camcorder, gives them to him to hold, and then hunts round the herbalist and traditional medical stalls for various useful ingredients. The stallholders are cagey at first, but when it becomes apparent that she knows what she is looking for, they grant her the respect due a priestess and the friendliness due a foreigner who is looking for more from them than just an exotic souvenir. She carefully places the receipts in the little bag she carries.
On the streets, the signs of last night's riots are being cleared away – broken shopfronts, burnt cars – and there is a heavy police presence.
On her return to the hotel, Celestina gathers the team together, including Andrew, and addresses them from the head of the table. She stands, to add authority to her small stature. 'I think I have come up with a plan, though please do tell me if any of you object to the role that I suggest you take. Firstly, Isobel – the CPR Group seemed very taken with you, or at least the woman, Isobelle did. I suggest that you try and get close to her, lead her to believe that you are very interested in their work and that you could be of use to them.'
'Yes, I was hoping to speak with her again later today,' says Isobelle agreeably. Everyone is rather taken aback at the efficiency with which Celestina seems to have seized control. She has been quiet and not really pushed herself forward until now, but the firmness of her gaze and the clarity of her speech, delivered with a minimum of gesture, is quite compelling. Johnny, who is used to assuming a dominant role himself when dealing with certain patients, recognizes that Celestina's experience at giving instruction must belie her relative youth.
'Hopefully they will admit you to their "realignment" session, which is when this should come in handy,' continues Celestina, giving Isobel one of the small Dictaphones that she purchased earlier. 'Try and record anything they tell you, any discussion of plans and the chanting. If it's all right with you Johnny, I would suggest that you take a similar approach with John, whose trust you seem to have gained. Keep an eye on him, try and get him to talk, and record it on this,' she hands him the other Dictaphone, 'and, if things get nasty or he becomes a danger to himself you can use this.' She passes over a tiny bag in which there is a small amount of various herbs. 'Put this in a drink and he will sleep for about twenty-four hours, however, if it is more urgent than that you can resort to this,' and she gives him a small blue bottle. 'Cover your face and let him get a good smell of this and he will sleep from anywhere from an hour to a week, but it must be a last resort, it is quite dangerous and you might accidentally inhale it yourself.'
Johnny accepts the concoctions warily, putting them carefully into inner pockets of his safari jacket.
'Now, Eddie and Mickey, I want you to trail Isobel and the CPR group, they seem quite fanatical and I'm worried that I might be endangering her by asking her to go with them. With any luck, Johnny will have also gained access to their rituals and then you'll be able to keep an eye on both of them. Try and use this to make a record of anything important that happens.' She hands over the lightweight camcorder. 'Who knows, we might even record the first known footage of a spirit within the pyramid.' She glances around, making sure she still has all their attention. 'That leaves just Andrew and I, and I'm afraid we may have drawn the short straw my friend, I think we should go and see Essawi in the morning, so that we you can keep in with the archaeologists and I can try and convince Essawi that our group is not dangerous at all.'
Andrew nods nervously. 'We can make sure that Essawi doesn't try anything against Professor Bird, as well.'
'I'll come along and meet Essawi too,' says Johnny, 'if that's OK – I want to try and make an assessment of his character.'
'Very well -'
'Well, I could look after John Torillo, then,' says Isobel helpfully, 'as I'll probably be here in the hotel all day.'
'Very well, as long as everyone is covered and none of us are exposed.' Celestina looks around again. 'My final suggestion is that you might all consider arming yourselves, just in case... Now, please, if any of you disagree with what I've said, make some suggestions of your own.'
'Thanks for these sleeping draughts, Celestina,' says Johnny, patting his pockets. 'Do you have anything that can protect us against possession?'
'As I told Mickey, the best defence is faith in a god or spirit who will protect you. Are you religious?'
'Not especially,' admits Johnny.
Celestina shakes her head. 'Nothing I can give you will help, then – for vodoun to work for you, you must believe in the power of the loa.'
Isobel has been looking thoughtful, as though chewing something over, and says 'Celestina, I think it's very important that you tell us about what happened at Branston Hall – especially your dealings with and knowledge of Essawi.'
'I'm really not sure how much I'm allowed to tell you,' says Celestina. 'I think it's safe to say that the people we were investigating there – and Egyptian-influenced solar cult – came under the influence of Essawi. He seems to have gone away with the obelisk they were charging up with their prayers, according to what I heard later. But on the way he entranced, or possessed possibly, two operatives – they both were given a faint silvery mark on their foreheads, and after that they seemed to obey his instructions.' She stops, having suddenly thought of something. 'Frank Gupper, the head of the cult, said he'd been given the prayers they used to charge the obelisk up while he was in Egypt, by a goddess or sorceress – I wonder if it was Khentkaus?'
'Mm, it worries me that perhaps Essawi has something to do with Khentkaus. Perhaps she has taken over his body?' suggests Isobel. 'Or perhaps she is manipulating him in some way? I just wish I could work out what Khentkaus hopes to achieve by helping the CPRG, if that's the case.'
'I don't suppose she was planning to free Hetepheres,' says Johnny. 'But, do you remember, Isobelle Kingston said they'd been given the obelisk by "a well-connected Egyptian gentleman" – Essawi? These new prayers they used last night were given to them by John – Haremakhet. Perhaps he's now hijacked Khentkaus's and Essawi's original plan?'
'I should tell you something about Nick Pope and Isobelle Kingston,' says Isobel. 'Pope seems to be very strange – he doesn't feel "human" – more reptilian, at least that's how he felt when I shook his hand. Kingston seems okay – although she obviously had some sort of power.' She shivers slightly at the memory of the look in Kingston's eyes when their hands touched – fear? dread?
After breakfast Johnny and Celestina drive down to rejoin Andrew at the dig and wait for Essawi. Mickey accompanies them, as he wants to chat with the diggers. He is deep in conversation with their leader, Sarfraz, when Essawi's black limousine rolls up. Sarfraz at once makes a sign, spits in the dirt and backs away from the gate.
Mickey, still hunkered down, watches over his shoulder as Essawi gets out of the car, turns slowly to survey the site, and heads gracefully into the tent where the others are waiting for him.
'What was that sign you made?' he asks Sarfraz once the Ministry official is well out of hearing.
'Effendi, was sign to ward off bad man – yes! Man who is witch, is servant of witch.' Sarfraz scratches through his grizzled beard perturbedly.
'I thought witches were just women – do you get male ones, then?' wonders Mickey.
'Warlocks!' exclaims a cheerful voice from behind him – it is Harry Challis, who is under the bonnet of one of the four-wheels.
'No, I'm pretty sure you do... oh, right.' Mickey frowns. 'Anyway, what about Essawi, then – how can you tell he's a warlock?'
'He wears sign of witch, here,' Sarfraz taps the centre of his own forehead.
'What sign? I've not seen anything on him.'
'Only see when light is special – magic light – last light of moon – first light of sun. Like this.' Sarfraz makes a quick sketch in the dirt. It is a group of hieroglyphs set in an oval – a pear-shaped blob surmounted by a cross, and two semicircles. 'Old sign of witch.'
'So what else d'you know about him – what's he been up to?'
Sarfraz glances around nervously. 'Is big man in Government – is servant of witch – is "warlock", sorcerer, knows old Egyptian magic – say that he shrivelled man's arm up for making him dirty – say that he gave man black sickness for talking back to him...'
This all sounds a bit vague to Mickey, but nonetheless he hands over a wodge of Egyptian currency worth about a tenner, and Sarfraz accepts it gratefully.
Meanwhile, in the tent, Sonia Bird, Andrew, Johnny and Celestina are exchanging wary pleasantries with Essawi. The big man seems enthused by the discoveries made so far. 'The tomb of Hetepheres – fascinating! Truly it is said, the current carries all things to the river's surface in time.'
'So, with your department's permission of course, we'd like to try and bring the sarcophagus out so that we can examine the mummy and funerary objects... and to continue our robot investigations higher into the pyramid,' says Sonia hurriedly.
'Hmm! A major undertaking, but a worthwhile one no doubt. Of course, it would have to be under close Ministry supervision.'
'But you speak of investigating higher. There is nothing higher, is there?'
'The ka-shaft, here, leads upwards from the chamber we've just found, do you see?' Sonia draws a quick sketch. 'We hope to send the robot up it.'
'But surely the ka-shaft is too narrow for your robot,' says Essawi. He frowns.
Sonia smiles weakly. 'We thought so, when we looked yesterday. But today... I think there must have been some settling overnight, or something like that. Here's a still from the camera,' she pulls out a large grey photographic print showing the ceiling of the inner chamber, 'and you can see that the ka-shaft aperture is now easily wide enough to admit the robot.'
Essawi blinks rapidly, and his hand momentarily clutches at the edge of the table. Johnny, although he keeps quiet, is amazed – for such a self-possessed man as the Egyptian to lose his cool to even this extent must mean a remarkable shock. 'How has this happened?' Essawi says in a low, menacing voice.
'Well, settlement overnight, as I say, or...'
Essawi strikes his hand flat down on the table, making everyone jump. 'No, this investigation will not be allowed by my Ministry – it must not take place.'
'What?' Sonia is shocked. 'All we want to do is send the robot up there – not to touch anything!'
'Even so!' He stands swiftly, his bulk dominating the tent. 'Under no circumstances must you do so.' He glances around each of them in turn. 'And you must know that to go against my wishes in this matter would be a most serious offence.' His voice purrs with menace.
Isobel meets John Torillo in the Hilton's coffee lounge. He has risen earlier than his CPRG cronies, and seems positively bouncy. 'John, I was thinking, perhaps you might ring SITU, and update them on what we have achieved so far? And find out what else we need to achieve before our time is up here?'
'Those fools!' He smiles viciously. 'They know nothing of these matters. No, Isobel, I keep my own counsel here, for who should know better than I what to do?
'Oh, all right, then,' says Isobel rather weakly. 'Er, how did things go for you last night? At the pyramid?'
'Well enough, well enough.' He relaxes slightly. 'My plans are coming ever nearer to their grand fruition. These fools who step alongside me, little do they know... ha!' He downs his coffee quickly.
'Well, I hope you achieve what you want to,' says Isobel agreeably, signalling to the nearest waiter for a refill. 'I was wondering – why do you think Essawi got the obelisk for the CPRG? Does he have some ulterior motive?'
Now John laughs, loud and long, causing the other morning drinkers to look round curiously at the pair. 'That witless buffoon! I have tricked him, yes, he was no match for my wits – what his own plan was I know not and care not, for what is he but a commoner and a fool – yes, I have turned his schemes to my own ends, and he serves me now did he but know it!' He crows with laughter again, slopping coffee about wildly.
'Well, that didn't go too brilliantly,' says Sonia Bird, her face in her hands.
Andrew pats her awkwardly on the back. 'At least he gave you permission to examine the sarcophagus of Hetepheres.'
'Yes, but in that case why not let us send the robot up the ka-shaft? It doesn't make sense.' She rubs her face vigorously and straightens up. 'Thanks.' She smiles warmly at Andrew and squeezes his hand. 'He really is a strange man, isn't he? Scary, almost.'
'You're not wrong,' agrees Johnny.
Meanwhile Celestina has joined Essawi as he stands beside his car, gazing balefully across at the pyramid.
'So, how was your stay at Branston Hall, Mr Essawi?' she asks politely. 'I am hoping to go back there after my work here has finished, as my grandmother is in excellent health now.'
Essawi turns to look down at her. 'You are in for a disappointment, Miss Mirande. Branston Hall is no more. It burnt to the ground.'
'Oh! That's a shame. I do hope no-one was hurt.'
'No-one who did not merit it.'
Celestina smiles as though this were a perfectly normal thing to say. 'It's such a pleasant coincidence us meeting here like this – I did enjoy our conversation at the Hall. I found what you had to say very interesting. So this is your work – supervision of antiquities?'
'Yes.' He regards her again. 'I must confess, Miss Mirande, that although I have encountered many British funding bodies in my dealings with your archaeologists, your Davina Millhouse Trust is new to me.'
'It's a new fund – set up with a large bequest from a wealthy enthusiast,' explains Celestina. 'I'd love to learn more about your own work. Could I possibly invite you to join me for dinner at my hotel at some point?'
Essawi smiles widely, although it is not clear whether the expression carries any real amiability. The tension of the meeting does not seem entirely to have left him. 'That would be delightful, Miss Mirande. Unfortunately I am not sure whether I shall be busy this evening or not – sometimes the demands of my post are rather exigent – but might I, perhaps, ask you to "pencil me in"? I can confirm with you nearer the time, if that would not put you to too much inconvenience.'
'Not at all,' says Celestina, 'that would be perfectly all right. I look forward to hearing from you later today, then. I am staying at the Giza Hilton.'
From Essawi's nod it is clear that this piece of information is not news to him.
Back at the hotel, as the morning mounts towards the heat of noon, Mickey corners Wasim, who has been avoiding him. 'Wasim, you are right,' he says as sincerely as he can. The servant eyes him warily. 'I am sorry I may have offended you with my request. I have another idea, perhaps a bit more extreme but possibly better.'
Wasim nods slowly.
'The CPRG are carrying an obelisk, this item I want,' continues Mickey. 'Now I was willing to break into their rooms to get it -' he holds up a hand to forestall Wasim's objection '- but your wise counsel swayed me. They travel to and from the pyramid with the obelisk, usually at night, a dangerous time to travel. A couple of people with guns could easily waylay them. Would you know some suitable people for the job?'
Wasim pretends to think hard. 'Effendi, no trouble, I find you men for this. Many men in Cairo now with guns! We kill them all so no witnesses, police will think was Muslim Brotherhood terrorists.'
'I don't know about killing them,' says Mickey. 'I'll have to think about that.'
'Not killing is more difficult,' Wasim assures him. 'Would be more risk of being recognized.'
'How much money are we looking at, then?'
Wasim counts on his fingers. 'Four people – five people? One jeep. Five hundred dollar, effendi. Three hundred more without killing.'
Mickey is amazed at how cheap life now is on the streets of Cairo.
He bids Wasim farewell and goes to call SITU. 'How can we get this obelisk back to you safely?'
'Well, it's not an actual ancient artefact – it was made in Croydon – so there's shouldn't be any trouble of the authorities. Best thing is probably one of you to take it out in your hand luggage, say it's a souvenir.'
As Mickey is digesting this Johnny appears. 'Come with me to visit the Dutchman?'
They drive slowly through the streets of the city. Again, as the day has worn on, tension has become apparent. They see a group of armed police dragging two young men out of a house, laying into them savagely with truncheons and bundling them into a van. Bystanders mutter angrily and as the police drive away a couple of them throw stones after the van. Mickey and Johnny are glad of their native disguises.
'Mickey, this Wafic Said – my thinking is, any help he can give you, if you're happy with it, go for it,' says Johnny.
'Cheers, boss,' says Mickey.
They reach van Heuvelen's resting-place and Mickey stays with the Suzuki while Johnny goes into the sweetshop again. The window has been covered with board and it is quite dark within: the shopkeeper is picking bits of broken glass out of his display and merely grunts morosely at Johnny.
In the back room, van Heuvelen appears quite perky. He is stoned again, but the drugs seem to be having some effect: he is much more cogent than previously.
Johnny starts talking to him gently, trying to ease him back to his experiences at the dig.
'That was one bad place, man,' says the Dutchman. 'I'm telling you – Nightmare Central. The creeping horrors – brr!' He shudders.
'What did you see?'
It was... the whole place, the pyramid and all, just gave you the creeps, you know what I'm saying? And the dreams... terrible, terrible dreams.'
'Dreams about monsters?'
'Oh, yeah, monsters – big crawling hands coming out of the desert, men with the heads of crocodiles – that sort of thing – but that wasn't the worst. No, it was the calling, the crying...'
'What was calling? Someone calling you?'
Van Heuvelen fixes him with a wild gaze. 'You ever been to an old asylum, doctor? Like when people used to just lock mad folks up, and you could go round and look at them... like your Bedlam in London. Just the dreadful mad shrieking, the souls in torment, calling out to you as you walk past, wanting you to help them – God! You've got to drown it out, haven't you?' He pulls heavily on the hookah. 'You don't want dreams like that, doctor, so you drink yourself, or you smoke yourself, to sleep, unconsciousness, knock yourself out, but what about when the dreams come when you're awake as well? What then, eh? What do you do then? And what if those voices, those mad, shrieking voices – what if they aren't human?'
By now he is jerking his limbs manically and his eyes are starting from his head, a fine white froth on his lips. Johnny, sighing, pulls out a syringe of morphine and slips it into one of the Dutchman's bulging veins. Almost at once he slips into unconsciousness.
This is worse than I thought – the guy's seriously deluded, Johnny thinks to himself. Perhaps a little hypnotic regression would do the trick – try and find out what's really at the bottom of these dreams. I think he can handle that.
When they return to the hotel, Mickey seeks out Celestina. 'Er, listen, I talked with Wafic Said, and he said it would be OK for me to use a homeless person or something to pay the price he requires. What do you reckon to that?'
11.30 am, Saturday 14th March 1998
Andrew at the dig
Everyone else at the Hilton
Isobel: you leave a note for Kingston, and mid-morning get a reply suggesting that you and she have lunch together – she knows a lovely place in town, the café of the Cairo Museum, and will meet you there at 1 if that suits you.
Reception look nervous when you ask about the riots. 'Is nothing to worry, madam,' says the clerk. 'Nowhere near to here – Cairo is a very big city.' You ask what if they come closer. 'Oh, police will protect this hotel – protection of our guests is very important for we Egyptians.' He is clearly trying hard to sound convincing.
Johnny: you are beginning to be slightly worried about Andrew. He is spending all his time around Professor Bird, as though she is the most important thing about your mission. Isobel is clearly very worried, about what is not clear. Celestina seems to be coming into her own and revealing a great deal of inner strength.